Biopreparat (Russian: Биопрепарат, "Biological substance preparation") was the Soviet Union's major biological warfare agency from the 1970s on. It was a vast, ostensibly civilian, network of secret laboratories, each of which focused on a different deadly bioagent. Its 30,000 employees researched and produced pathogenic weapons for use in a major war.
Biopreparat was established in 1973 as a "civilian" continuation of earlier Soviet bio-warfare programs (see Soviet biological weapons program). The project was reportedly initiated by academician Yuri Ovchinnikov who convinced General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that development of biological weapons was necessary. The research at Biopreparat constituted a blatant violation by the Soviet Union of the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 which outlawed biological weapons. Its existence was steadfastly denied by Soviet officials for decades.
Exposure of Biopreparat in the West
In April 1979, a major outbreak of pulmonary anthrax in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) caused the deaths of 105 or more Soviet citizens. Sverdlovsk contained a Biopreparat facility. The Soviet Union attempted to cover up reports of the incident, but details leaked out to the West in 1980 when the German newspaper Bild Zeitung carried a story about the incident. Moscow described allegations that the epidemic was an accident at a biological warfare facility as "slanderous propaganda" and insisted the anthrax outbreak had been caused by tainted meat.
The first senior Soviet biological weapons engineer to defect to the West was Vladimir Pasechnik (1937–2001) who alerted Western intelligence in 1989 to the vast scope of Moscow's clandestine program. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President George H. W. Bush put pressure on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to open up Russia's germ warfare facilities to a team of outside inspectors. When the inspectors toured four of the sites in 1991, they were met with denials and evasions. Production tanks, the purpose of which seemed to be to manufacture large quantities of hazardous materials, were clean and sterile when presented to inspectors. Laboratories had been stripped of equipment before being presented to inspectors.
Pasechnik's revelations that the program was much greater in scope than previously suspected were confirmed in 1992 with the defection to the United States of Colonel Kanatjan Alibekov (b. 1950), the First Deputy Director of Biopreparat. Alibekov (now known as Ken Alibek) held his role in Biopreparat from 1988 to 1992. He claimed that development of new strains of genetically engineered weapons was still continuing.
Alibek later wrote the book Biohazard (1999) detailing publicly his extensive inside knowledge of the structure, goals, operations and achievements of Biopreparat. He was also featured in the October 13, 1998 episode of Frontline (PBS TV series).
The Biopreparat complex suffered with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then several large bioweapons production lines have been officially closed. Its current state is unknown, however it is likely that Biopreparat and successor entities continued bioweapons research and development at least through the 1990s.
Biopreparat was a system of 18, nominally civilian, research laboratories and centers scattered chiefly around European Russia, in which a small army of scientists and technicians developed biological weapons such as anthrax, Ebola, Marburg virus, plague, Q fever, Junin virus, glanders, and smallpox. It was the largest producer of weaponized anthrax in the Soviet Union and was a leader in the development of new bioweapons technologies.
The project had 18 major labs and production centers:
- Stepnogorsk Scientific and Technical Institute for Microbiology, Stepnogorsk, northern Kazakhstan
- Institute of Ultra Pure Biochemical Preparations, Leningrad, a weaponized plague center
- Vector State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR), a weaponized smallpox center
- Institute of Engineering Immunology, Lyubuchany
- Institute of Applied Biochemistry, Omutninsk
- Kirov bioweapons production facility, Kirov, Kirov Oblast
- Zagorsk smallpox production facility, Zagorsk
- Berdsk bioweapons production facility, Berdsk
- Sverdlovsk bioweapons production facility (Military Compound 19), Sverdlovsk, a weaponized anthrax center
- Vozrozhdeniya Island bioweapons testing site, Aral Sea
- Kazakh Science Center for the Quarantine of Zoonotic Diseases, Almaty: contains plague, anthrax, tularemia; facilities are to be replaced by the more modern Central Reference Laboratory in collaboration with the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Pathogens that were successfully weaponized by the organization included (in order of completion):
- Bubonic plague
- Venezuelan equine encephalitis
- Marburg virus (believed to be under development as of 1992)
- Machupo virus (believed to be under development as of 1992)
- Veepox (hybrid of Venezuelan equine encephalitis with smallpox)
- Ebolapox (hybrid of ebola with smallpox)
Annual production capacities for many of the above listed pathogens were in the tens of tons, typically with redundant production facilities located throughout the Soviet Union.
- Ken Alibek
- Yuri Ovchinnikov
- Poison laboratory of the Soviet secret services
- Sergei Popov (defected in 1992)
- Alibek,K. and S. Handelman. Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World - Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran it. 1999. Delta (2000) ISBN 0-385-33496-6 
- Pasternack, Alex (August 29, 2013). "The US is building a bioweapons lab in Kazakhstan". Salon.
- Information about Biopreparat from FAS
- MIT Technology Review article featuring a lecture by Dr. Serguei Popov, a former Biopreparat researcher working on recombinant DNA techniques for developing novel biological weapons
- Article from James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies report: "FORMER SOVIET BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS FACILITIES IN KAZAKHSTAN: PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE". Also describes Biopreparat in some detail.